A melting glacier in the Alps has shifted the border between Switzerland and Italy, putting the location of an Italian mountain chalet in dispute.
The border runs along a watershed – the point where meltwater will flow down either side of the mountain to one country or the other.
But the retreat of the Theodul Glacier means the watershed has slid towards the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 3,480-metre (11,417-foot) Testa Grigia peak – and it’s gradually sweeping under building.
During a recent visit to the refuge’s restaurant, Frédéric, a 59-year-old tourist, asked: “So, are we in Switzerland?
It was a question worth asking. The answer was the subject of diplomatic negotiations that began in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year, but the details remain secret.
When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely in Italian territory. But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, are technically perched in southern Switzerland.
The issue has come to the fore as the region, which relies on tourism, sits atop one of the largest ski resorts in the world, with major new development including the construction of a cable car station a few meters away.
A deal was struck in Florence in November 2021, but the outcome will only be revealed once approved by the Swiss government, which won’t happen until 2023.
“We agreed to split the difference,” said Alain Wicht, border manager at the Swiss national mapping agency Swisstopo.
Its job is to look after the 7,000 beacons along Switzerland’s landlocked 1,200-mile (1,935 km) border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.
Wicht attended the negotiations, where both sides made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither team came out on top, at least no one lost,” he said.
Where the Italian-Swiss border crosses the Alpine glaciers, the border follows the watershed line. But Theodul Glacier lost nearly a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010. This exposed the rock below to ice, changing the watershed line and forcing the two neighbors to redraw around a stretch of 100 meters long from their border.
Wicht said such adjustments were common and were usually settled by comparing the readings of surveyors from bordering countries, without involving politicians.
“We are fighting over territory that is not worth much,” he said. But he added that it is “the only place where we suddenly had a building involved”, giving “economic value” to the land.
His Italian counterparts declined to comment “because of the complex international situation”.
Jean-Philippe Amstein, a former head of Swisstopo, said such disputes were usually resolved by exchanging plots of land of equivalent surface area and value. In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in getting a piece of glacier,” he said, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface.”
While the result remains secret, the caretaker of the refuge, Lucio Trucco, 51, has been informed that he will remain on Italian soil. “The shelter remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” he said. “The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian, and the taxes are Italian.”
Years of negotiation have delayed the renovation of the refuge – villages on both sides of the border have been unable to issue building permits. The work will therefore not be completed in time for the planned opening of a new cable car on the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn at the end of 2023. The slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt.
While some mid-altitude resorts are preparing for the end of downhill skiing due to global warming, skiing is possible all summer on the slopes of Zermatt-Cervinia, although such activities contribute to the retreat of the glacier.
“That’s why we have to improve the area here, because it will surely be the last to die,” said Trucco.
For now, on the Swisstopo maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border remains a dotted line at the refuge pass.